End of first quarter: Stanford 7, USC 3
The first quarter had its highs and lows for the Cardinal, and it appears that neither team really has seized control heading into the second quarter. Stanford scored on its opening drive but its second drive stalled, forcing the Card to punt. On the other side, the Cardinal defense gave up some early yardage on USC’s first drive before stiffening on its own 37-yard line. On the Trojans’ second drive, USC got deep into the Stanford red zone, but the Cardinal knocked down two consecutive passes to limit the Trojans to a field goal.
Play of the quarter: Stanford had a golden chance to grab the early momentum, driving deep into the USC red zone on its first possession. Facing third and five on the Trojan 10-yard line, it looked like the Card blew its opportunity when quarterback Andrew Luck threw an out to running back Tyler Gaffney, who was swarmed by Trojan defenders. However, Gaffney dodged one tackler and danced around another one, diving into the end zone for a Cardinal TD.
Williamson’s absence raises questions: Jordan Williamson didn’t start, with Eric Whitaker kicking both field goals and kickoffs. Early indications show that this might be a pretty serious problem for Stanford, as Whitaker kicked his first kickoff out of bounds to give USC the ball on its own 40-yard line. There’s no question that Williamson is a better kicker, so if this game winds up being close, his absence could have an outsized impact.
Ertz injured early: Tight end Zach Ertz, one of Stanford’s highly talented trio of tight ends, was injured on the opening kickoff. There’s been no word on how serious his injury is, but his loss deprives Andrew Luck of a potent weapon.
Mixed results from pass defense: Stanford’s pass defense was a mixed bag in the first quarter. There were points at which it seemed like Matt Barkley couldn’t complete a pass no matter what he did; at other times, it looked like he could move the ball at will. Overall, Barkley is 7-of-13 for 61 yards, but that masks some of those inconsistencies in the Cardinal pass defense.
Halftime: Stanford 10, USC 6
The second quarter brought another string of surprisingly stout defensive performances from both teams. I am amazed the score is so low; with two of the Pac-12’s better offenses, I expected that this game was far more likely to be a shootout than a defensive struggle.
USC forced Stanford into a couple of punts and held the Card to a field goal when the visitors drove into the red zone. Stanford’s defense also had a pick of Matt Barkley, which led to the field goal, and forced another USC punt. USC, meanwhile, hit a field goal of its own late in the quarter.
Play of the quarter: After a strong Robert Woods punt return to the USC 30-yard line, USC looked poised to drive down the field and seize the lead. However, Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley had other ideas; on a third-down pass intended for tight end Randall Telfer, Tarpley stretched out and made a spectacular interception before falling to the ground.
Card racked by penalty problems: Heading into halftime, Stanford has five penalties for 40 yards, and that doesn’t include what looked like an obvious pass-interference penalty that wasn’t called by the refs. A couple of those penalties have been really damaging. The first was a holding call on Ryan Hewitt early in the quarter that set Stanford up with a first-and-20 at its own 28-yard line; the Card couldn’t recover that distance and was forced to punt. The second was a delay of game penalty when Stanford had the ball on USC’s 10-yard line. Luck missed his next two passes and the Card were forced to settle for a field goal.
Run/pass balance, or lack thereof: Stanford and USC seem to be following markedly different offensive philosophies. Stanford has shown a balance attack, with 14 passes and 16 runs. By contrast, USC quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown the ball 25 times and has only handed it off seven times. It appears that the Trojans have already given up on overcoming Stanford’s formidable run defense and are concentrating instead on attacking its more suspect secondary, still missing Delano Howell. The Cardinal is sticking to its philosophy of balance, but given that it hasn’t yielded a ton of success, it may make adjustments at halftime.
Robert Woods burning Stanford: Stanford’s secondary has been repeatedly torched by star Trojan wideout Robert Woods. Woods has four receptions for 30 yards; the only reason he doesn’t have a lot more is because of a couple of dropped passes and overthrown balls that could have gone for huge gains. The Cardinal will need to come up with a better plan to contain him in the second half. However, double-teaming him might be off the table, as USC has another explosive playmaker at wideout in true freshman Marqise Lee.
Second-half positioning: The Trojans will get the ball to start the second half and an immediate chance to take the lead. The Cardinal will need to keep up its stout defensive play to maintain its slim four-point edge.
End of third quarter: Stanford 24, USC 20
USC came out of the locker room at halftime and absolutely dominated the early part of the quarter, scoring on two quick touchdown strikes to go up 20-10, putting Stanford in a deficit for the first time this season. The Cardinal came back for a touchdown to narrow the hole to three points, and so it remains anyone’s game heading into the final frame.
Play of the quarter: USC started the second half with the ball, looking to quickly take their first lead of the evening. The Trojans did just that, courtesy of a huge 61-yard run from Curtis McNeal on their third play of the quarter. McNeal got through the first level of the defense and hit the edge, outrunning the remaining Stanford defenders in a footrace to the end zone. The score put USC up 13-10 and electrified the Trojan sideline and the Coliseum crowd.
Play of the quarter II: After Stanford forced a punt and got the ball back, still trailing 20-17, the Cardinal completed another highlight-reel play that is sure to be all over YouTube in short order. In a play that I’m going to call the “Wildcat fleaflicker,” Tyler Gaffney took the snap in the Wildcat formation, handed it off on a reverse to Anthony Wilkerson, who tossed it back to Andrew Luck (who was running a reverse the other way), who threw a 62-yard bomb to Ty Montgomery that positioned Stanford deep inside USC territory. That is without a doubt the most insane trick play I’ve seen in a long time, and leaves me wondering: who comes up with this stuff?
Play of the quarter III: After that Wildcat fleaflicker, the Cardinal ran into a familiar situation: fourth-and-one, deep inside the opponent’s red zone. What wasn’t so familiar about this situation was the accompanying a 20-17 deficit. Stanford chose to go for it, and left no pretensions about what it planned to do: it lined up in “power” formation and handed the ball to Jeremy Stewart, who bulled through the line for two yards. On the next play, Andrew Luck dropped back for a pass, before seeing a big gap up the middle and deciding to take off. Luck ran untouched into the end zone, putting Stanford up 24-20.
USC run game comes alive: A previously moribund USC rush offense came out and gashed the Cardinal in the third quarter. Entering the quarter, the Trojans had a total of seven rushes for five yards; at this point, USC has racked up 111 yards on 13 carries, sparked by McNeal’s huge touchdown runs of 61 and 25 yards. Whatever adjustments the Trojans made at halftime to their running game seem to have worked, and it will be interesting to see how the Stanford defense responds in the fourth quarter.
Call and response: Both teams showed immense grit and resiliency in the third quarter. USC showed it is worthy of consideration as an elite team, putting up two quick scores while hitting the Cardinal offense in the mouth. Stanford showed a fair bit of tenacity as well, responding to USC’s two touchdowns with two scores of its own, while its defense managed to make a crucial hold on the possession after McNeal’s second touchdown. All of this will make for a pretty spectacular fourth quarter.
Luck as a leader: After the Cardinal fell behind 20-10, Andrew Luck seemed to take the game into his own hands to will Stanford to close the gap. He consistently made passes on Stanford’s first touchdown drive of the quarter, including the scoring toss to Ryan Hewitt, before making a huge pass play on the Wildcat fleaflicker and running the ball into the end zone himself.
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